Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Eleven: Stalking Horse, Gift Horse, Trojan Horse

Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Eleven: Stalking Horse, Gift Horse, Trojan Horse

Article excerpt

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out (Beckett, 1972, pp. 17-18)

Coincident with the rise of Western art at the time of the Renaissance, the world began more quickly to pass from an affective universe of symbolic exchange, in which psychic life is projected into and lived in the social and cultural world, to the rational material world of equivalence and exchange value, in which the psychic life of humankind is drawn back into inferiority and the drives are experienced as individual and intrapsychic. Behind the "genius" of the Renaissance artist lurked the sovereign self of possessive individualism. The shift to competitive market economies required the unfettering of narcissism, but this did not mean a simple unleashing of crude instinctual forces; it also required, as Foucault demonstrated in several historical studies, the evolution of a new kind of "discipline." First, a measure of narcissism had to be transferred from the custody of cultural authority and redefined as a moral problem for the individual: notably, the burden of calculating self-interest and the anguish of a personal relationship with God. This de-socialization, or selling off, of large parts of the narcissistic agenda to the "private sector" created new and unexplored territories, but few individuals were in a position to meet these challenges or to take advantage of the opportunities created. The move did, however, have a salutary effect in the arts. William Blake, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot complained of what the last termed the "dissociation of sensibility," an autonomization around the time of Milton of the intellect in opposition to feeling; but the same split authorized the visual artist to bypass the intellect (this was Poussin's complaint against Caravaggio [Marin 1995]) and become the champion of narsensual inspiration, as we see emerging in baroque painting and architecture. The late Renaissance de-collectivization of institutionalized narcissism involved not only a revaluation of the seven deadly sins, but also a discovery or rediscovery of sensuality, intuition, creativity, initiative, independence, industriousness, and the "invisible hand" of the market. As the arts gained social autonomy, they could expand as fields of experimentation; they became the laboratory in which the very force that liberated them could be discovered and documented, celebrated and dissected: human narcissism itself. The life of the artist, though marginalized in social space, became central to society, an ambiguous archetype of the new responsibility or moral burden; its form shifted drastically from a role assigned by position in a medieval hierarchy or in a reciprocal relation to a tribal community, and became instead a kind of imaginary self-creation, involving the originality of one's "vision" and the value of one's personal production. The individual life itself gradually evolved into something that could be measured as a work of art created autonomously by the individual, whether he or she is an artist or an entrepreneur.

A purely historicist perspective tends to see the rise of capitalism as a net increase in social fragmentation and selfish values. The sacred ties that bound people and things in traditional symbolic communities are broken and replaced by independent individuals in the market, each with a strategy for taking wealth out of collective circulation for personal and private use - usually security and consumption. The ambivalent object of symbolic exchange, which cannot be bought, sold, or possessed, but only handed on or held in trust, is denuded of its spiritual significance and reduced to a vehicle of exchange value, the commodity. Bodily fluids, such as blood and semen, organs, like hearts and kidneys, and even fetuses, become marketable items. To many, this looks like a destruction of natural social values in order to replace them with artificial narcissistic values.

While the descriptive analysis of the collapse of traditional symbolic social forms is accurate, the inference that this collapse has destroyed something natural in human sociability and replaced it with something artificial - increased narcissism - is misleading. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.